48 hours in Schloss Colditz & Leipzig – a Great Escape in Saxony
If I say the word Colditz do you think of escape? We did. All we knew about this part of Germany was that people from all over Europe had perfected the art of getting away from it. So when we discovered the prison made famous by TV and film was part of our DJH #CastleHostels tour, we weren’t sure whether to expect a warm welcome or a lock in. In this post, in part an advertising feature for German Youth Hostels, we describe our experiences in this fascinating building, what we got up to during a 48 hour stay at the hostel, and why we really didn’t want to escape…
An infamous prison
Tell any Brit of a certain age you are going to Colditz on holiday and they will be interested, bordering on thrilled. Thanks to the Escape from Colditz TV series, the daring escapes became part of the fabric of all our childhoods.
Tell any German you are going to Colditz on holiday and you’ll be met with a blank face. Most Germans have never heard of the infamous prison in Saxony that once leaked like a sieve.
Our kids are in the dark about the history so we take along a projector and threaten to show them the film if they try to escape. But then no one is actually that bothered about escaping from this historic hostel. Except to go swimming, canoeing and to a theme park in nearby Leipzig.
We start our 48 hours in Colditz at the museum that specialises in telling a good tale. Check out this video to see what it’s like to stay in Colditz Castle and to visit the Castle Museum on an escape tour.
Welcome to historic Colditz
Colditz Castle sits high on a hill spur overlooking the town of Colditz and the River Zwickauer Mulde in south east Germany. It may be most famous as a WWII POW camp but it has a much more varied history. The Schloss Colditz Youth Hostel is in the former administration wing of the prison, which over the centuries has also been a royal hunting lodge, a poorhouse and a psychiatric hostel. In the sunshine, it is a warming yellow gold and if you stand in the right place you can catch a sunburst in your photo. The only sign this morning that it was ever a repository for allied prisoners of war officers are the cardboard cut-outs of famous escapees. Yes, cardboard cut-outs that are perfect for Colditz selfies! It’s an indication that the Colditz museum doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Yet Colditz is a serious business. It still has the original heavy gate that once (mostly) stopped Prisoners leaving and if you don’t take your key at night you may well find yourself accidentally out in the cold. It trades on its past, especially with Brits and Americans who come to relive the stories – and tours of the castle come in ‘long’ or ‘very long’ versions. The very long lasts all day! The regular tour is advertised as an hour on the website but leave extra time to do one – ours took over two hours. But no one minds as it’s so interesting. And our guide has a twinkle in her eye as she shows us around.
“They went down the cliff. You may want to walk down the steps,” says Steffi Schubert. Later she invites us to climb through the snug cellar ventilation shaft. “Or you could go this way. It’s your decision,” she says, holding open the door.
For prisoners of war after World War II, escaping from Colditz became a challenge bordering on an obsession. “This was history’s biggest game of cat and mouse. Officers had to earn their stay by escaping from other prisons so it was full of the most ingenious brains,” says Steffi. The museum and tour focusses on the officers’ camp from 1939-1945. We learn that over thirty prisoners succeeded in escaping, mainly concentrated in 1941 and 1942.
The stories are extraordinary. They leap frogged over fences, they dug tunnels, they built a full size glider in the attic. They hauled building materials up using the pulleys of the clock in the shaft of the clock tower. They did naked escapes backwards through kitchen ventilation shafts.
The prison became known as an ‘escape academy.’ They dressed as officers and navigated dog kennels and hid down wells. They cut bars from windows and packed themselves into mattress consignments. They made pistols from papier mache and smuggled a radio into the prison in 72 pieces. The devil was in the detail. Folding toffee wrappers in a certain way was a signal to other escapees. They became great impersonators. The British were right in the thick of it, organising teams to assault the ‘escape-proof’ building. They saw it as a challenge.
“One quality that set the British apart was imagination,” says Steffi as we climb endless stairs, past where they bunked down, in the cold of an east German winter, to the loft area where they built a glider. “They used porridge to glue it together,“ she smiles – pointing to the replica plane that now sits impossibly in the attic.
On a tour of the prison you’ll see everything that was left behind. But make sure you don’t get left behind in a tunnel. Unless you are good at escaping!
Escape to Colditz town
The youth hostel offers lunch, but we need some air. It’s a short walk down the village, where in the square we discover the perfect pick me up. The Schlosscafe is offering strawberry pizza. Not your cheese and bread version but a sweet and sticky substitute. Along with some cheese toasties it does the job nicely.
Then it’s time for swimming. We head over to Waterpark Riff in Bad Lausick, an aqua centre with indoor and outdoor pools. There’s a terrifying crazy river, water slides and a rather more relaxing lazy river. For keen divers in the family there’s also a large diving pool with a 5m platform which the kids get a kick from pencil diving off.
Escape into the movies
In the evening, we set up our portable projector in our hostel room, pop on the 1955 film ‘The Colditz Story‘ that we bought from the museum shop, and watch the locations we’ve explored come to life in black and white with a beer or two in one of the bedrooms. Shame we didn’t have the Colditz Board game with us.
No desire to escape
Although the castle was first built as a hunting lodge in 1578, it only became a Jugendherberge Youth Hostel in 2007. While outside it is impressive, don’t expect too many creature comforts indoors. It’s not like it was for prisoners of war but it is a hostel and bedrooms are simply furnished. But the fun is staying in this historic place and you feel the history with every step, especially in the outdoor areas and courtyards. Rooms are ensuite and the communal areas are fine for a family, with a games room with table tennis on the ground floor and table football outside on the terrace. There’s a small communal area at reception where you can buy drinks cheaply from the fridge and chat with the superfriendly staff. Breakfast is free and other simple meals are provided on arrangement. Meals can be eaten outside in the garden if the weather is warm. It’s a short walk into the village and many people bring their own bikes to cycle in the surrounding countryside and by the river.
No time to hang around in Leipzig
For Day 2 we make up our own great escape. Leipzig is about 40 kilometres from the hostel but for our day trip to the city we have no time for sight-seeing, we make an appointment to go canoeing. En-route we spot an indoor high ropes course at Kinderparadies in Grimma, about halfway between Colditz and Leipzig (17kms.) This converted warehouse is an unusually active fun factory for kids with climbing, go karts and many other challenges. And just next door a beach volleyball court has a championship going on. Nearby, the Paintball Arena Leipzig offers special paintball sessions for kids. All look great fun.
Leipzig city canoeing
You may be wondering how we are planning to take to the water in a busy city in Eastern Germany. But it’s quite a popular thing in Leipzig. There is a network of canals, rivers and lakes accessible from the city and on a canal spur at the Stadthafen you can book a boat trip or hire canoes, kayaks, stand up paddleboards or other boats to explore. You don’t have to go far but if you have three or four hours to spare (and plenty of energy), paddle out to the Cospudener See. This journey is gentle and relaxing, with just a couple of locks to negotiate.
From the city to the sea
You go under bridges and pass festivals and picnicking families, and then the banks close in and it’s just you and the river and the bluest of dragonflies buzzing by, and the greenest of reeds to tangle into and curls of willow hanging down to tickle your forehead. And although we are paddling against the current, no one has to work too hard. And the reward, as you leave the sheltered river and enter the open lake is huge. But have your paddles ready, it can be windy at your destination and you may be blown a little off course. We battle our way round to the canoe drop off point where we have pre-arranged for the boats to be picked up.
From countryside back to the city
If we had booked some bikes in advance we could have cycled back into the city, which would have been lovely. But instead we have a quick ice cream and then begin the journey back by public transport. In less than an hour we are back in Leipzig’s central station. I love this station – it has some elegant spacious cafes and lots of places to train spot or dream about future journeys.
If you like street art just step outside for a quick fix of mural. Or if you’ve time head over to the Spinnerai art collective and galleries, or grab a concert at the Gewandhaus concert hall – soon to be celebrating its 25th year.
The Kingdom of Belantis
We finish our family fun in Leipzig with a visit to Belantis Adventure Kingdom. Built in 2003 this is a relatively young theme park and even though we are there in August, queues are nowhere near as long as some other theme parks we visit over the summer. The park is a mixture of rides and interactive things to do; you can climb strategically placed logs, bounce on castles or play a drum in a yurt. And charmingly for young kids, there are lots of mini versions of the bigger rides.
A rollercoaster ride
The big draw for our kids is Huracan, one of the world’s top ten steepest roller-coasters. This Euro-Fighter coaster falls at an angle of 97 degrees (yes, that’s more than vertical) and has five inversions. It’s a stomach churning end to our Colditz adventure but probably a lot safer than flying a glider off the roof of Colditz at night.
Why didn’t the POW’s think of building a roller coaster when they were planning their escape from Colditz?
Schloss Colditz and Hostel
The Schloss Colditz Youth Hostel opens 7am-10pm. Bookings can be made online. There’s no train station in Colditz, so if you haven’t got your own transport you may find it a bit of a faff. But it is possible to reach it by catching the regular bus from from Leipzig, via Grimma and Bad Lausick. Being a castle, the hostel is high on a hill so be prepared for a bit of an uphill hike from the town before bed.
The short tour of Schloss Colditz with museum included costs €9, with a discount to €7.50 for kids. A family ticket is €29.50. 10’s and under go free. A visit to the museum alone costs €4 for adults. Tours leave the museum entrance at 10.30, 1pm and 3pm from April to October, and at 11am and 2.30pm in winter. You can also book a five hour or a one day tour. Tours are led by guides in English, French and German.
At Leipzig Stadthafen you can rent kayaks, canoes, paddleboards or bikes. Kayaks are from €6 an hour and there are different options for a family. Hire includes paddle and buoyancy aids. Don’t forget to take snacks and a drink if you are planning a longer journey like the one we did to Cospudener See. You can catch a tram to Stadthafen from outside central station or it’s walkable with a map. To return to Leipzig city centre from Cospudener See catch Bus 65 to Markkleeberg and then the train to Leipzig Hauptbahnhof. Transport home cost us €16 for a family of five.
Belantis is in the Leipzig area, on the far side of the Cospudener See. It is open from March to November from 10am-5pm. You can cycle there on fixed bicycle paths in about 40 minutes. You could even canoe! By public transport from Leipzig take an S-Bahn train from the main station to Markkleeberg then take Belantis line 105 bus to the park. Check departure times online in advance as this bus only runs 3 times a day in each direction. At the time of writing, one day entry to Belantis cost €32.90 online and €34.90 at the ticket office for anyone over the age of eleven. There are reductions for under 11s and under 5s are free. Family tickets may also offer better value, bookable online. See website for details.
Want to read more #CastleHostel posts
For more Castle Hostel inspiration check out these other posts from our German #CastleHostels road trip series.
Disclosure Note: This post is part of a paid campaign for DJH, the German Youth Hostels Association (Jugendherberge), who provided our stay at DJH Schloss Colditz. All escaping from Colditz, canoeing, rollercoaster riding as well as words, photography and videography are entirely of our own making.